Ignatieff Interviewed in Nepszabadsag

Hungarian daily Nepszabadsag published an interview with President and Rector Michael Ignatieff about the university and its mission on October 1, 2016. The Hungarian article can be found here, and the English translation is below.

“George Soros Is a Patriot”

INTERVIEW - Michael Ignatieff, CEU’s new President and Rector, talks about the university, its mission, and George Soros, whom he calls a patriot.

Why did you apply for the position of President and Rector of CEU?

First of all, due to my Hungarian connection. My wife grew up at Balatonfured, I’ve been going there for 20 years. I have a strong commitment to this country. The second reason is strong as well. CEU is an extraordinary institution. In the field of social sciences it is an extremely renowned postgraduate university. I enjoyed being at Harvard University, however, I saw a chance for myself to form an institution here.   

How do you see CEU among similar universities? Is there any other university like CEU at all?

This university is absolutely unique. It is a global institution with students from 110 countries, and our faculty members are also from more than 40 countries. The fact that we operate in Budapest is also a big draw. It is advantageous to be based in Budapest, and I believe it is also advantageous for Budapest to have us. Look out the window and you will see what we have done to shape the fifth district. With our new buildings we have opened our doors to the city. This is a global, postgraduate university in the middle of Europe. It is not a child anymore! It is more than 25 years old. We train students for the 21st century. Our current students may well have four careers in their lives. They can be journalists, maybe public servants, they may start a business, they can move from one country to another. The career paths of the 20th century are not relevant any more. What might be more important is that our students constantly can ask themselves the question in the footsteps of the 16th-century French humanist Michel de Montaigne: What do I know? It is difficult to answer this question in the 21st century, because it is more and more difficult to distinguish between knowledge, opinion, gossip, tweet, blog, fantasy and lies. The language of our times has eroded. Postgraduate education of our times must prepare students to be able to distinguish knowledge from lies, gossip and opinion.

Has CEU managed in the past 25 years to shape the countries its students are from?

We have more than 13,000 alumni from 130 countries. They all have different world views. The network does not spread propaganda. We want to educate honest citizens who have a knowledge-based approach to solving their countries’ problems. Many of our alumni are in leadership positions throughout the world. But the university is not a political party, it is not an NGO, not a charitable institution or an activist organization. We would never tell our graduates what to do. We train them to be honest people. One is honest when one tries to aspire toward real knowledge in the interest of society.

What kind of developmental plan do you have in the sense of expanding your faculties and research areas?

What we’ve already achieved is amazing. We are one of the leaders in the education of network science and cognitive science. It’s my aim that more and more of our students get exposed to “big data” analysis, network and cognitive science. 200 meters from here in our university labs we conduct research with babies. Babies who do not yet speak. One of our departments conducts research on their cognitive abilities. We get astonishing facts about the learning abilities of babies. We built a new building in the interest of this kind of research.

How does CEU relate to Hungarian higher education?

We need to be a bridge, not an island. I received my credentials from the President of Hungary. Some might think CEU is an American university alone, but many of our programs are accredited in Hungary, and Hungarian students make up the largest single nationality at CEU.

CEU was founded by George Soros. In the past months his personality and views were severely attacked on the highest levels in a political campaign in Hungary. Is CEU able to isolate itself from this?

We watch television, we read the papers, we know about this. You can dispute the views of George Soros, you can challenge his principles, theories, vision, but I state: there is no other Hungarian living outside of Hungary who tried to do more for his country than Mr. Soros. When he is being attacked, I feel that Hungarians have to know that he is that Hungarian living across the ocean who has been supporting his country since the 1980s. Many from the current government have enjoyed his generosity. This is a fact. The university is not a political party or a foundation, it does not get involved in the domestic affairs of Hungary. It is true, many of my colleagues criticize the steps the government takes, its initiative about the referendum, and its standpoint in connection with the refugees. My job is to make sure that they are free to talk about their views. It is positive that the government has not damaged CEU’s academic freedom. I’ve received a clear message from the government: they recognize what we do, and they make a distinction between their polemics with Mr. Soros and CEU. CEU is not a target. I consider it regrettable that Mr. Soros is, as I think he is a patriotic Hungarian.